Ninth Circuit, Overturning an Award, Backs More Arbitrator Disclosure

By Daniel Bornstein

The Ninth U.S. Court of Appeals ruled this week that arbitrators are required to disclose their ownership interests in the organizations they are affiliated with and the organizations’ business dealings with the arbitration parties.

In Monster Energy Co. v. City Beverages LLC, Nos. 17-55813/17-56082 (9th Cir. Oct. 22)  (available at http://bit.ly/2PjmXzq), a 2-1 appellate panel vacated an arbitration award because the arbitrator, retired California state judge John W. Kennedy, failed to disclose both his ownership interest in JAMS and the fact that JAMS had administered 97 arbitrations for one of the parties.

The decision has important implications for arbitrators’ disclosure of their financial interests. Under the majority decision by Circuit Judge Milan D. Smith Jr.–joined by Oregon-based U.S. District Court Judge Michael H. Simon, sitting by designation–it isn’t sufficient for arbitrators to vaguely state that they have an economic stake in the success of their organization, and to merely note that their organization has done business in the past with one of the parties.

Rather, arbitrators must make clear the specific nature of their economic interest—that is, their ownership–and the scope of those past business ties.

City Beverages had alleged that Monster Energy had committed a breach of contract. After an almost nine-year business relationship, Monster Energy terminated the distribution contract without cause, an act that was permitted by the contract as long as it made a severance payment. But City Beverages rejected a $2.5 million payment, invoking the Washington Franchise Investment Protection Act, which prohibits termination of a franchise contract absent good cause.

Monster Energy’s move was upheld in arbitration, and it was awarded $3 million in attorneys fees. City Beverages appealed to the Ninth Circuit on the basis that the arbitrator had not adequately disclosed his ties to JAMS, and his and his firm’s relationship with Monster Energy. See By Savannah Billingham-Hemminger, “Not Just the Arbitrator: Ninth Circuit Looks at Provider Disclosure Obligation,” 37 Alternatives 119 (September 2019) (available at http://bit.ly/2WmriUh).

As the panel opinion noted, an arbitrator is required to disclose when he has a “substantial interest in a firm which has done more than trivial business with a party.” Commonwealth Coatings Corp. v. Cont’l Cas. Co., 393 U.S. 145, 151-152 (1968). In turn, vacating an arbitration award is appropriate when the arbitrator neglects to disclose “any dealings that might create an impression of possible bias.” Id., at 149.

Judge Smith’s analysis of Arbitrator Kennedy’s “evident partiality”—a Federal Arbitration Act standard for overturning awards–is contained in two parts. First, it reasoned that the arbitrator’s ownership interest in JAMS was “sufficiently substantial” to warrant disclosure. A JAMS arbitrator who is a co-owner of the organization is entitled to a share of the profits from all arbitrations administered by JAMS, not merely the ones the neutral undertakes personally.

Because only about one-third of JAMS’ more than 400 neutrals are owners, Kennedy’s ownership interest “greatly exceeds the general economic interest that all JAMS neutrals naturally have in the organization.”

Second, the appeals court determined that JAMS and Monster Energy were engaged in “nontrivial business dealings” that were not disclosed to City Beverages. Over the past five years, JAMS had administered 97 arbitrations in which Monster Energy was a party. This is largely because the energy drink maker’s form contracts contain a provision identifying JAMS’ Orange County, Calif., office as its arbitrator source.

Kennedy submitted a disclosure statement, which read:

I practice in association with JAMS.  Each JAMS neutral, including me, has an economic interest in the overall financial success of JAMS.  In addition, because of the nature and size of JAMS, the parties should assume that one or more of the other neutrals who practice with JAMS has participated in an arbitration, mediation or other dispute resolution proceeding with the parties, counsel or insurers in this case and may do so in the future. “

The majority opinion considered this statement inadequate because it failed to mention Kennedy’s ownership interest in JAMS, and JAMS’ business relationship with Monster.

Judge Smith wrote

We thus hold that before an arbitrator is officially engaged to perform an arbitration, to ensure that the parties’ acceptance of the arbitrator is informed, arbitrators must disclose their ownership interests, if any, in the arbitration organizations with whom they are affiliated in connection with the proposed arbitration, and those organizations’ nontrivial business dealings with the parties to the arbitration.

The opinion notes, “Prospectively, arbitration organizations like JAMS, which are already well-accustomed to extensive conflicts checks and disclosures, will have no difficulty fulfilling, and even exceeding, the requirements described here.”

Judge Smith concluded that failing to disclose the extensive business relationship with Monster Energy and the arbitrator’s JAMS ownership interest “creates a reasonable impression of bias and supports vacatur of the arbitration award.”  The panel also overturned the fees.

Circuit Judge Michelle T. Friedland dissented, noting that she disagreed that in evaluating “whether the Arbitrator might favor Monster, the additional information the majority believes should have been disclosed would have made any material difference.”

She writes that the majority opinion is unclear on the nature and extent of disclosure, and “[a]s these lingering questions demonstrate, . . . is likely to generate endless litigation over arbitrations that were intended to finally resolve disputes outside the court system.”

In addition to her view that the Monster Energy attorneys fees arbitration award should be upheld, Friedland looked extensively at the repeat-player issue regarding the relationship between JAMS and Monster Energy.  She noted

Owners of JAMS have an interest in maximizing JAMS’s amount of business, because they share in JAMS’s profits. Likewise, non-owner arbitrators have an interest in advancing their professional careers and maintaining their status with JAMS, which creates similar incentives to decide cases in a way that is acceptable to repeat player customers—otherwise, JAMS might terminate the nonowner’s JAMS affiliation.

In her dissent’s final paragraph, Friedland took a dim view of arbitration:

To the extent that the private arbitration system favors repeat players, I think it is unfortunate that so many parties forgo the protections of Article III and turn to arbitration instead. It is especially unfortunate when arbitrations involve a non-repeat player party that had no choice but to agree to arbitration in order to acquire employment, purchase a product, or obtain a necessary service. The majority laudably seeks to mitigate disparities between repeat players and one-shot players in the arbitration system. But I disagree that requiring disclosures about the elephant that everyone knows is in the room will address those disparities. It will only cause many arbitrations to be redone, and endless litigation over how many repeated arbitrations there will be.

 

The author, a 2L at St. John’s University School of Law in Jamaica, N.Y., is a CPR Institute Fall 2019 intern.